What do they REALLY test?

I said earlier that the tests don’t really test math or verbal skills.  This is why I have an ethical problem with these tests: they do their thing by trying to deceive and distract you.  Not cool, ETS.  On the other hand, the skills they do test?  They are handy skills to have, and will help you in school and in your job and in life.  People who cultivate these skills definitely have a leg up in life.  This is good news, ’cause you are about to start cultivating them, and I can promise you, it won’t be a waste of time.  Hard, maybe, but worth it.

So what are these secret skills?

  1. Following directions
  2. Paying attention to details
  3. Organizing your information effectively

“Say whaa?”  you say.  “That’s so easy.  Why aren’t I already at 800/180?”  Well, my friend, chances are you suck at this stuff.  Most people do.  Following directions?  We are, as a human race, catastrophically bad at following written directions.  Catastrophic because we assume that we can follow said directions, which means we try to give direction by writing.  (Have you ever tried to follow prescription directions?  How to exit a building safely in the case of fire?  Can you even follow a recipe?  Can you fill out your tax forms?  Correctly??)

Paying attention to details?  Even more hopeless.  People work in approximations.  They don’t want to think through things really carefully, and read every single word.  Hvea yuo sene tohse eaxmlpes wrhee teh ltetres aer all jmubeld?  We can read them anyway!  Which is cool, but it means we aren’t sweating the small stuff.  Great for lots of life, bad for the SAT/GMAT/LSAT/GRE.

Organizing your information effectively is a subtler skill than the other two.  It is what helps you overcome your instincts to gloss over important details or answer a question differently than the one being asked.  It is also, of course, what will crack open the analytical reasoning section on the LSAT (i.e. the LSAT games).  It also gets you most of the distance on data sufficiency questions (GMAT) and quantitative comparison questions (GRE and SAT).

I actually think that my previous career as a musician was instrumental to my being good at these tests.  When you are reading music, it is all about following directions and paying attention to detail.  Every dot on the page has lots of meaning.  You also learn to structure that mess of data into phrases, movements, musical forms, etc.  You see the structure beneath the variations.

So how do you study these skills?  There are no formulas to memorize.

I would first approach this as a practice, rather than as a finite set of skills.  Think yoga or meditation, not cramming for your calculus exam.  Awareness is the first step.  If you start studying for the GRE, say, by memorizing a bunch of geometry formulas, you are heading for a long, slow, unproductive slog.  If instead, you take some practice questions (written by the real test writers, please!) observe yourself as you go through the questions.  If you get a question wrong, was it because you “just made a careless mistake”?  ETS test writers lure you into carelessness.  That didn’t happen by accident.  Which piece of information necessary to solving the question did you gloss over?  Did you rely on your gut when you chose your answer?  Start making a list, and study it for common themes.

You can develop your practice in other ways.  Start working your way through intricate recipes, Julie & Julia -style.  When a recipe doesn’t come out the way it should, is that because of something you glossed over or an ambiguity in the recipe?  Annotate your experiences, look for patterns.  Play Sudoku and develop a process for solving the puzzles quickly that works for you.  Do LSAT logic games, even if you aren’t studying for the LSAT.  If you play an instrument or sing, learn new, rhythmically complicated pieces.

You are building a set of cognitive skills that are hard.  Be patient (think of the baby falling to his butt, time and time again, as he learns to take his first step) and stay focused on these skills everywhere you can.  Track the clarity that starts to emerge when you do those practice questions.


2 comments on “What do they REALLY test?

  1. […] you who fit into either of these descriptions, this post is for you.  While the GMAT, GRE, and SAT don’t actually try to test your math skills comprehensively, do you have to be really comfortable with some math.  And for […]

  2. […] each step’s answer appears in the answer choices!  You, of course, are going to remember what the test really tests, and make sure you actually answer the question being asked, […]

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